How to Build an Awesome Volunteer Network

A colleague and I were chatting today about the ever-present issue of finding enough volunteers to support your cause.  We seem to focus all our attention on the individual we hope to recruit instead of taking a look at how we can use our volunteer networks and larger partnerships to accomplish the same this, perhaps with less effort.  After a while, we get burned out trying the same old tactics over and over again.  Even if they are working, they feel tired and boring.  I think I have a fresh idea that might add some spice to your life, and might even increase the number of well-matched volunteer candidates that come your way and stick.

A few weeks ago I was listening to a Duct Tape Marketing podcast interview with Ivan Misner, the founder of the wildly successful business networking company BNI.  If you’re skeptical about the power of business-to-business networks, consider this — In the last five years, local BNI chapters referred over $11 billion in business to each other.  That’s a lot of business, especially in a recession!!

So I started thinking, how could nonprofits use his model to find and refer volunteers?  Misner’s model of networking is no coffee klatch.  Nor is it obnoxious, hard-core sales.  It’s actually a pretty smart relationship marketing strategy that could be put to use by a small group of savvy volunteer coordinators, either by starting up a network from scratch or renovating the one you already belong to that isn’t getting results.

How Successful Businesses Network

BNI networks consist of local chapters, made of small businesses.  Only one business per specific category can belong to the local chapter (i.e., one doctor, one lawyer, one CPA, etc.).  The network meets each week and follows a very strict agenda, part of which involves each person in the room introducing themselves and giving a short pitch about their business. They do this each and every time, regardless of how well they know each other.  They also make a pact to refer customers and patronize the chapter’s businesses.

A New Version, Tweaked for Nonprofits

What if a set number of local nonprofit organizations got together to do the same thing?  Membership would be limited and would represent organizations with a wide array of volunteer opportunities.  Instead of referring business, they would refer volunteers they had met during their screening process and found they were not the right fit, did not have the time to commit, or who simply weren’t interested in what the nonprofit had to offer.

Permission-based Volunteer Referrals

All nonprofits in the network would agree that they would not only recruit volunteers but also commit to each and every potential volunteer that if the nonprofit was not the right fit, they would make every attempt to find another opportunity that might work.  And, they would market this promise in each and every volunteer recruitment announcement, presentation, etc.  The promise would become part of their brand, and the referrals would be made to other organizations within the network.

The Guarantee

At this point, you may be saying to yourself, “What?!  If we do this we will lose volunteers!”  I disagree.  What if you told prospective volunteers that you were so convinced that your organization was a fantastic place to volunteer (and it was!) that you would guarantee the volunteer’s satisfaction?  And, if they were unsatisfied for any reason, you’d do everything in your power to help them find another place to be happy.  What do you think that would do to build the trust between you and the volunteer applicant?  If your team got behind the philosophy of 100% satisfaction, what do you think it would do for your program?

Think I’m crazy?  Consider Zappos, the innovative shoe company with a flair for good ideas.  After they train their staff, they actually offer to pay them to leave!  How’s that for a retention strategy!?

Yes, at the end of their first week of orientation they make each and every employee, no mater their position, The Offer: “If you quit today, we will pay you for the amount of time you’ve worked, plus we will offer you a $2,000 bonus.”  Then, they give them a few weeks to think about it.  Zappos understands that their business will only thrive if they have the most committed employees.  And, in the end, they do.  To date, no one has ever taken them up on the offer.

The Volunteer Network in Action

The referral network would meet regularly to introduce themselves and share the contact info of volunteers who are looking for placement (again with the volunteers’ permission).  A referral profile form of some kind might be helpful, but it would be important not to create a whole bureaucracy around it.  Nobody needs more paperwork than they already have!  In a sense, the network would act as a very involved, high touch, and informed volunteer matching service.

To motivate and recognize the work of individuals within the network, and to continue to build trust within the group, they would also take time to share.  They would talk about how the referrals went and troubleshoot anything that didn’t go as smoothly as it could.  Meetings might also be a place to share ideas and welcome speakers with something fresh to add.  Meetings could rotate with each partner organization taking a turn at hosting.  Through site visits to their colleague’s home offices, members could get to know the working environment and be able to describe it to volunteers they might refer.

Of course, some ground rules would need to be established.  What specific volunteer information would remain confidential and what would be shared?  Would a release need to be signed?  How would people with criminal backgrounds be handled?  And others I’ve neglected to mention.

It’s Worth a Try

What if your network became a high-profile volunteer magnet in the community?  What if you used a “no wrong door” approach with your potential supporters? What if helping volunteers find the absolute best fit for their passions became job one?  Imagine the postive word of mouth you’d create!  And, you’d no longer toil away in isolation!  Instead, you’d be working with a far-reaching and powerful team that’s got your back.  It may sound idealistic, but if it works in the business world where companies closely guard their customers and trade secrete, why can’t it work in the nonprofit world where we’re all about peace, love, and understanding?

What do you think?  How would you tweak this idea to make it better?